On Badgers, Experts And Democracy

Elitism is a bundle of ideas and concepts that come together in the idea that human societies are naturally and necessarily led by a small class of the powerful and wealthy, the ruling elite, and that this is both historically inevitable and indeed desirable because it leads to efficient government.

However, anthropology shows that some form of more or less egalitarian community assembly governs almost all tribal societies we know of; if an elite is identified it is usually based on age, the elders, and religion, the shaman, not on coercive power. In Africa it was often colonial rulers who imposed the alien concept of “the Chief” on to tribal cultures in order to facilitate an efficient hierarchical control & management system.

Human Beings lived in broadly egalitarian tribal societies for at least 250,000 years. We have lived in settled, urban, elitist societies for about 10,000 years. The idea that a ruling elite is an inevitable part of human nature is a myth. If anything it is an imposition put upon humanity as a result of urbanisation.

But in the modern world it is not just politics that is elitist – elitism has overtaken all aspects of our society. The idea of the expert has invaded all our public discourse. The relationship between scientists and the general public perhaps illustrates this most clearly. GM crops, genetics, ubiquitous surveillance equipment, weapons of mass destruction, global warming, expensive pharmaceuticals, intellectual property theft, new recreational mind altering drug etc etc; all these areas of scientific development present society with significant moral, economic and political dilemmas but when we try to publicly discuss these ideas we are constantly referred to scientists, we are constantly told that we as ordinary citizens are not competent to make decisions on these issues, that we have to “trust the scientists”. Yet when we ask the scientists to make moral decisions about the research they undertake they often reply that they are merely searching for “truth” and it is society that has to decide on the regulation of  any products or processes that emerge from the research. The phrase cake and eat it comes to mind.

I would like to illustrate the nuts and bolts of this by looking at the issue of Bovine TB and the proposed cull of badgers. For thirty years or more there has been a perceived problem of bovine TB in the UK domestic cattle population. There have been many initiatives to reduce and/or eradicate the disease but all have failed. Many farmers and certainly the NFU maintain that the indigenous wild badger population is the reservoir of the disease and that the only way to eradicate the disease in cattle is to eradicate the badgers.

I have read many books and pamphlets and attended various meetings with experts and interested parties to discuss the crisis. In all these discussions I hear a constant refrain from the ‘experts’ – namely that “science must drive this argument”, that “the issue must be decided on the basis of the science”. However having heard various people lay out different partisan versions of the scientific evidence it is clear that there is no consensus on what “the science” indicates, or even what qualifies as “science”, in this debate. Various people put forward various credible but contradictory interpretations of “the science”. Some ignore some of “the science” choosing only to focus on certain aspects; others choose to focus on a different aspect. The result is that the debate becomes bogged down in an intense discussion of micro issues of scientific interpretation which most of the public are neither qualified nor inclined to try to resolve.

This leads me to suggest that the scientific approach to this issue is no more likely to resolve it than a specifically the moral, philosophical and political approach.

Popular public opposition to the badger cull has not arisen because of calmly prepared costs/benefit analysis on Bovine TB based on the current scientific evidence.  No, people write letters, join organisations and attended meetings because they are morally outraged at the suggestion of a 100% cull of a species of indigenous wild creature for what seem like morally trivial reasons. This is an issue of moral proportionality. The public response is quite rightly not based in science and even if the scientific evidence could prove beyond doubt that this cull would eradicate bovine TB in the UK for all time it would still be perfectly rational to oppose it on moral grounds.

Indeed this illustrates the weakness in the purely scientific approach to the argument – i.e. evidence might be produced in the future that proves the effectiveness of the 100% cull and those who oppose it would have no ‘scientific’ way of continuing the argument. However, they would still have a rational way of maintaining their position because despite the implications underlying much of these ‘scientific’ discussions the issue of eradicating badgers is not actually a scientific decision – it is a moral decision and ultimately we have to discuss the issue in those terms and to do so may actually provide a much more definitive route through the morass of conflicting evidence and competing interest groups.

The type of intellectual elitism that attempts to resolve social, moral and political questions solely by reference to expert knowledge happens all across our society: Economists claim they are the only ones competent to speak on economic matters, historians on history, critics on the arts, even that politicians or professional political commentators are the only ones competent to speak on politics.

Indeed this is clearly what most of the elitists believe, that ordinary citizens, should, as far as possible, be kept out of decisions affecting their specialism. The recent scandal surrounding the emails from scientists at East Anglia University illustrates this effect perfectly, with scientists trying desperately to maintain control of the way people interpreted their work.

By the way, my argument does not deny the obvious importance and value of expert knowledge in resolving the issues that face us. Clearly our world is so technologically complex that expert knowledge is essential for us to decide anything but we often are unable to see that many so-called technical issues are in fact moral or political issues and that therefore it is legitimate for all citizens to contribute to the debate.

A vision of public discourse that sees ordinary citizens as being literally incompetent to comment on the issues of the day profoundly undermines our concept of democracy. Certainly as ordinary citizens most of us are not competent to decide whether badgers are responsible for TB in cattle but we are competent to decide whether there should be a mass slaughter of badgers in response to the science because the decision to undertake such a cull is not a scientific issue, it is a moral issue based on how much we value our natural habitat and the other creatures we share our planet with.

In our culture today expert knowledge is deliberately used by intellectual and ruling elites to cut ordinary citizens out of public debate. Why? Because this enables them to more effectively manipulate public opinion – often from the best of motives, i.e. they believe their expert knowledge makes them best placed to make effective decisions that will benefit us all. If you doubt this thesis I would ask you to look at the way expert opinion was used to establish the presence of “weapons of mass destruction’ in the build up to the Iraq war.

The motto of the Royal Society, the establishment heart of our scientific elite, is Nullius In Verba, which is Latin for “take no one’s word for it “or “take nothing on authority”. I would urge all of us to adopt their policy and think for ourselves; by this I do not mean we should challenge all expert evidence as if all experts are charlatans, which by and large they are not, I simply mean we must separate out the expert evidence from the real social, moral and political questions that have to be addressed and assert our democratic right to engage in the public discourse.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society


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